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'Rare, rare bird' joins fleet at World War II aviation museum in Colorado Springs

October 15, 2017 Updated: October 17, 2017 at 6:33 am
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Various tools lay around on the table at WestPac Restorations Inc. as a Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless, was brought into the facilities on Thursday October 12, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The SBD is best remembered as the bomber that delivered the fatal blows to the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

The newest exhibit at the National Museum of World War II Aviation is overweight and underpowered.

It's a warplane that was outgunned by nearly everything in the sky during the war. Next to its shiny blue Navy cousins, even its dull paint job seems out of place.

But the two-seat Douglas Dauntless - soon to be on display at the museum near the Colorado Springs airport - has a resume no aircraft can match: It's the tubby little bomber that sank the Japanese fleet at Midway, turning the tide in World War II.

"This was a workhorse," said Alan Wojciak, with Westpac Restorations.

It's also one of three of its kind left on Earth that can still rumble into the air.

The bomber's path to Colorado Springs is a long one. It was designed in the 1930s and built in Oklahoma. From there it was sent to Michigan for pilot training.

It's one of weird forgotten chapters of World War II. With the Japanese threatening the West Coast and Germans on the East, the Navy went inland to train. On Lake Michigan, the Navy rebuilt a pair of paddle-wheel steamers - creatures of the 19th century - to serve as mock carriers for training.

Alan Wojciak, Vice President of WestPac Restorations Inc. and an airplane mechanic, sits in the cockpit of a Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless, that was brought into the WestPac Restorations Inc. on Thursday October 12, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The SBD is best remembered as the bomber that delivered the fatal blows to the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

The plane that now resides in Colorado Springs was dumped into the lake by a student pilot and subsequently rammed by the side-wheeler USS Sable before it sank to the bottom. There it stayed until 1994, when it was rescued from the depths by aviation enthusiasts.

The wrecked plane was added to the collection of billionaire and premiere collector Jim Slattery, who has put several planes from his fleet into the museum's care.

Recently restored in California and flown to Colorado for its final touches, the plane is a salute to World War II, with vacuum tube radios, a primitive radar and a telescope sight that protrudes from the windshield.

"It's got a big, fat wing, it's a great bombing platform," Wojciak said.

The planes proved their bombing prowess when an outnumbered American force took on the largest Japanese battle fleet ever assembled at Midway Island on June 4, 1942.

The dive bombers, designed to descend on targets at a 70-degree angle, unleashed a torrent of accurate bombs onto the crowded decks of four Japanese aircraft carriers. All four sank.

The Japanese fleet was all but eliminated as a threat, dooming that nation to defeat in the war.

The Dauntless, though, never got much credit for the pivotal victory. More than 5,900 were made, but the Navy ordered the Curtiss Helldiver to replace it in 1940 - a year before America went to war.

In a 2011 article, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Magazine described Dauntless as "sluggish enough to make its crews spend at least a few of their flight hours daydreaming about its replacement."

Wojciak said many of the insults aimed at the plane are undeserved. It's solid as a rock and as tough as a battleship, he said.

The instrument panel of the cockpit of a Douglas SBD-4 Dauntless, that was brought into the WestPac Restorations Inc. on Thursday October 12, 2017 in Colorado Springs. The SBD is best remembered as the bomber that delivered the fatal blows to the Japanese carriers at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

"It's rugged and easy to fly," he said.

Bill Klaers, who runs Westpac and oversees the aviation museum next door, said it also has a quality the sleek fighters in the collection don't possess.

"That's a rare, rare bird," he said.

The Dauntless joins a fleet of Navy planes at the museum, including the Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber, the F4U Corsair fighter and the F7F Tigercat twin-engined fighter.

But the rarity of the Dauntless means it gets star treatment.

Like the other planes at the museum, it will be flown.

But Wojciak said flying one of the three Dauntless bombers left in the air is daunting.

"We baby it," he said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

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